Sarah Sanders says the USDA label has a price tag attached to its meaning.
There is little chance you’ll see a tractor on Broad Street. I admit, you might see one during a parade or a riot, but you have a better chance of spotting a tractor in a parade than a farmer transporting hay or pulling another – perhaps an even larger – piece of harvesting equipment.
So sometimes I wonder how much effect those idyllic images of red barns, green grass and smiling white cows have on us city-dwellers.
We like the sound of “farm-fresh” eggs and “all-natural” tortilla chips. The images of bountiful produce and healthy-looking animals on our packaging warm the heart.
Yes, I’m about to tell you these images aren’t real, for the most part. It’d be more accurate to illustrate the huge industrial facilities that package, distribute and sometimes even create the food.
What I really want to get at this week is something I touched on two weeks ago when I surveyed the Fresh Grocer’s organic section.
Maybe you don’t trust the pastoral depictions on the products you find in Acme, but you have much more confidence in the organic cottage cheese you bought last week at Whole Foods. The big secret is, most commercial organic companies use the same advertising tricks as the big, bad conventional companies.
How else could Whole Foods manufacture hundreds of organic products under its 365 brand without the use of some heavy machinery and a lot of space? It’s not exactly a company that could operate on a small lot in Chester County. The United States Department of Agriculture’s organic label means big business these days.
“I’d rather buy local than organic,” Rebecca Johnson, a junior advertising research major, said. I met Johnson a couple of Thursdays ago when she was sitting behind a small card table at the Cecil B. Moore Avenue farmer’s market, selling some herbs, carrots and deliciously sweet black-cherry tomatoes on behalf of Temple Community Garden.
Johnson said she recognizes that most small farms cannot afford USDA organic certification, thus making it a label more accessible to larger commercial operations. As she described, Johnson comes from a “family of blue-collar farmers,” who have worked on both small and large organic operations.
Her aunt and uncle, for example, once worked on a certified organic apple orchard in Rome, N.Y. As far as agricultural practices go, the orchard met USDA organic standards. The working conditions, however, were another story.
“It was the same as conventional farming,” Johnson said. “There were unfair wages and unpaid workers.” She added that her father’s practices at his small-scale farm were more organically sound than those at the certified orchard.
At Fresh Grocer, I went straight for the organic section for guacamole ingredients because although I was pretty sure the produce came from big businesses, at the very least it wasn’t the big business of pesticides or genetically modified food.
Nonetheless, USDA organic standards have a lot of loopholes, and the products that carry this label aren’t always as natural or fresh as you might have hoped.
Talk to a farmer about the food he or she is growing, and how the person grows it. My new favorite phrase is “chem-free,” because it usually means organically grown without the label. You know, how food was supposed to be – sans chemicals – but without all the paperwork and excessive fees.
It’s only September, and everything’s in season, so take a peek this Thursday at the farmers market on Liacouras Walk, outside Ritter Hall. I made sure that all the produce in this week’s recipe could be found locally, and it stars Johnson’s and my favorite, the tomato.
Sarah Sanders can be reached at email@example.com.